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21 Rose Briar Court

by Carole Bellacera

Nothing's changed down here in the two years I've been gone.  Oh, the traffic on the main highway is a little worse.  And maybe the houses are just a bit shabbier.  But it's still a good neighborhood full of two-income families and two-car garages and azalea-embroidered lawns and welcome mats at the front door.  I used to be a part of all this.  Just another hard-working man, paying a mortgage, raising two kids and falling in bed at night next to a woman I'd loved since high school.

But those were the good times.  Before the bottle came into my life and took it all away.

I'm driving down Azalea Street now, and there, on my right, is the house where the Layton's lived.  Charlotte and Steve had moved out even before our divorce was final.  Still together, I'd heard.  Funny how some marriages can weather anything.  At first, I blamed Charlotte for everything.  It took me a long time to acknowledge my own responsibility.  If I'd been sober, that afternoon with Charlotte would never have happened. 

Up ahead is Rose Briar Court.  I make the right-hand turn, my eyes scanning the house on the corner.  210 Rose Briar Court--an address that had been imprinted on my checks for almost six years.  It's still imprinted on my mind.  Guess it always will be.  There, in the front yard, is the apple tree I planted that first spring after we moved in.  It's flowering now with petals of light pink and white.  I remember Brad, a sturdy seven-year-old then, had helped me dig the hole while Kevin, only four, mostly got in the way.  He'd carried off the shovel, and I'd snapped at him for it.  He'd cried, and Susan had came out and took him inside, consoling him with the promise of helping her bake cookies.  But that was a long time ago.

I gaze around at my old neighborhood.  It's a Saturday morning, and some of the neighbors--strangers now, most of them--are having yard sales.  That's good.  I can park and look at the house without being noticed.  Not that Susan would recognize me behind this beard and dark glasses.

The house has new windows--those expensive thermal kind that keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer.  I'd always wanted them, but could never seem to get the money together.  Any extra cash I had went into the liquor store coffers.  I guess Susan's husband is doing well in his business.  A building contractor, I heard.  Maybe he even put the windows in himself.  As I'd passed the front of the house, I'd seen a new swing on the porch, too.  I wonder if it squeaks like the old one did.       Susie and me loved to sit there in that swing on those warm summer evenings in the early years.  We'd sit there holding hands and listen to the crickets chirp.  But that was before I started drinking.  In the last years of our marriage, Susan would be sitting in that swing by herself, just waiting for me to come home--dead drunk most of the time.  Until she'd finally stopped waiting.

I see a flash of golden fur in the fenced back yard.  Old Duffy.  Still alive and doing well, it seems.  My throat thickens and suddenly, I'm finding it hard to swallow.  Something about seeing my old dog in that backyard...well, it hurts more than I ever guessed it would.  I'd bought the Golden Retriever pup for Susan's birthday that first year in this house, and although he was a gift to her, that dog belonged to the whole family.  He'd been there for me during the bad times, non-judgmental and always loving.  At the divorce settlement, Duffy was the only thing I really wanted, but I couldn't take him away from Susan and the kids.  Besides, what kind of life could he have with me--a drifter who looked at the world through the bottom of a Jim Beam bottle?

The back door opens and Kevin comes out with a basketball.  My heart gives a lurch as I see how much he's grown.  Eleven, now.  Dark-haired and lean.  How many basketball games have I missed in the last two years?  He begins to dribble the ball on the backyard court.  The sound of each bounce sends a spear of pain through my heart.  He takes a shot, misses, and the ball bounces away into the grass.  Suddenly another figure appears.  A tall, blond man.  The new husband.  He grabs the ball and begins to dribble it.  Grinning, Kevin tries to take it away, but the man knows what he's doing.  He turns his back and dribbles toward the goal.  He scores with a quick lay-up and Kevin rebounds.  For several minutes, they play one-on-one until the man ends the game with a laugh and a teasing ruffle of Kevin's dark hair.  Kevin ducks away from him, grinning.  In that last year before I moved out, I hadn't seen him smile much.  The blond man strides toward a shed in the back yard and a moment later, appears with a ladder.  He comes through the backyard gate and walks around to the side of the house.

He climbs the ladder and begins to clean out the gutters.  My eyes catch movement from the front of the house.  It's Brad--so tall and lanky at fifteen that I probably wouldn't have known him if I'd passed him on the street.  He walks over to the ladder.  Through the opened window of my car, I can hear his voice, not the voice I remembered, but one deeper and more mature.

"Hey, Dad, how about ten dollars for washing the car?"

Dad?  And in that one word, uttered by a voice hovering on the threshold of manhood, I realize the magnitude of what my drinking has stolen from me.  Tears blind me, wiping out the sight of my son talking to the man he called Dad, and when I finally blink them away, Brad has disappeared back around to the front of the house.    I've heard from relatives that the boys are doing fine.  The divorce was tough on them, especially Brad, who had some problems in school after I moved out.  But all that seems to be resolved now.  They like their step-father.  In fact, everybody likes him.  I probably would, too.  I'm glad he's a good guy.  Susie deserves that.  God knows she went through hell with me, attending Al-Anon meetings religiously, trying to find a way to help me.  Even after that episode with Charlotte, Susan would've given me another chance--if I'd only given up the drinking.  I knew that, and I still chose the bottle over her.

My thoughts must've conjured her up.   She comes out through the back gate.  With her hands on her slim hips, she looks up at the man on the ladder and says something.  I can hear her voice, but can't make out what she's saying.  My eyes devour her.  She's as pretty as she always was, her hair still dark and from this distance, unstreaked by grey.

Memories flash through my mind of her in her wedding dress, smiling radiantly.  Lying in a hospital bed after giving birth to one of our sons.  And finally, the memory of the day when she told me our marriage was over, and her eyes were dead and her voice was flat and whatever love she'd ever held for me had drained away as surely as water through a sieve.

Suddenly she laughs up at the man on the ladder, and I know her eyes are no longer dead.  And with this knowledge, a sudden thirst wells up in me, and in the pit of my stomach an ache burns and craves and insists and demands, and I know there is nothing else to do but answer the call.

I switch on the ignition, and my second-hand Chrysler groans to life.  As I pull out onto the street, I glance once more at the woman I loved--the woman I love--but I see she hasn't noticed me as I pass by and turn left onto Azalea Street.  And somehow, this makes the ache in the pit of my stomach even more demanding.

I drive down Azalea Street toward the main highway that leads to the interstate.  There's a bar I know down near the railroad tracks.  I wonder if it's open this early on a Saturday.

Just one drink.  That's all I need.  A good belt for the road.


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